Thirty Days at the Stone: Highlights from a Month Curated by J. G. Thirlwellby Sergei Tcherepnin
Since the venue’s inception in 2005, a constant and ever-changing stream of new music has been flowing from the Stone, an intimate space nestled on the Lower East Side. Conceived by composer/improviser John Zorn, the Stone has a staunchly DIY ethos: Artists themselves are in charge of the organization of their musical community, while the music sustains that community. (Zorn’s record label, Tzadik, pays all of the venue’s expenses, while all the Stone’s profits goes directly to the performers.) There are two shows every night except Monday, offering an ongoing “festival” of new music, curated by a different artist each month.
This past September the appointed curator was composer/performer J. G. Thirlwell, who brought together vastly different styles of music, reflecting the many musical personalities that he himself inhabits. (His myriad identities include Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Clint Ruin, Wiseblood, DJ OTEFSU, Manorexia, and Baby Zizanie). With his presentation of distinct and contrasting music, Thirlwell showed how an artist-run venue like the Stone can stretch the limits of what is considered “new music,” while also giving the musicians the opportunity to expand the minds of their audience. A full review of this month of shows could fill a book, so I will focus on a small selection of some of the more vibrant evenings presented by single artists.
After sadly missing many of the concerts during the opening week, I finally made it to “Chamber Music of Alexandra du Bois: Distant Occupation.” A young NYC-based composer, du Bois presented three poignant compositions: two string quartets originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and here played by Miranda Cuckson, Boris Kupesic, Diane Leung, and Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, and a mesmerizing trio for flute, harp, and percussion commissioned and performed by MAYA. The two string quartets were closely related, as each traced the emotional contours of a war from the past century: WWII and the current Iraq War, respectively. Rather than following a traditional narrative, however, du Bois took emotional content associated with the given situation and transformed it into powerfully evocative music, with a rich sense of harmony and color. Her first string quartet, entitled Oculus pro oculo totum orbem terrae caecat (“An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind”), was written in 2003 during the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It begins with “a slow interpretation of the call of the bird the mourning dove, at dawn.” This simple theme, a descending semitone glissando, recurs throughout the piece, always with a different emotional meaning, at times giving a sense of calm, at other times ominously signaling approaching violence, and at still others augmenting the harmony in supernatural ways. The players clearly understood this, always sensitive in their intonation and timing.
Two nights later, in contrast to this carefully worked-out and thoroughly rehearsed program, Brooklyn-based composer/improviser Okkyung Lee presented a twenty-minute set of solo cello improvisations that had the audience listening to the most minute sounds. Lee started each piece from silence, “asking” the cello where to start. In the first piece, she began very softly, lightly skipping over the strings with quick movements of her bow, the sound barely bleeding through the silence as she “tuned in” to the music. This piece quickly grew into loud cycles of sound—repeated attacks created by active circular arm movements. The cello appeared to be an extension of Lee’s body that was transmitting pre-existing sounds—as if she were searching through noise to find meaningful sonic relationships.
The second piece again started softly, as Lee tuned in to another world, one that turned out to be more angular in shape, with upward glissandos fragmented by concentrated tremolos. Broken rhythms collapsed, created with the repeated pattern of the wooden bow hitting the strings, then her hand hitting the wooden body of the cello.
Lee’s third and final improvisation was a simple melody played with the same sensitivity as the first two, but very different in character, sounding more like a through-composed piece. After hearing the first two pieces, which embraced all sounds and made sense out of them, the nuances of this piece became as important as the development of the pentatonic melody.
Later in the month, there was a set by minimalist pioneer Tony Conrad, who played a colorful variety of instruments culminating in the bowing of a metal wire powered by a sewing machine. His first “song” addressed music itself: as he strummed his oddly tuned electric autoharp (the tuning was based on a minor third 7:6 interval), he half sang/half talked like a bard about developments—or lack thereof—in recent music, repeating several times that “music is at issue.” As he played floating, ethereal, subtly shifting harmonies, he also commented on the sounds that he was producing. He submitted that we likely had never before heard the harmonic changes that we were now experiencing, because Western music has not developed outside of the confines of the twelve-tone equal temperament system, which, Conrad notes, has its roots in Pythagoras’ “discovery” that “numbers rule the cosmos.” Conrad’s critique of Western music goes right to the heart of human experience to question what most people otherwise accept as “universal truths.”
Conrad’s next piece, similar in its intimacy, was more subjective than the first: while strumming glissandos on his toy slide guitar, his song was “a romantic reflection on the sunlight in the morning, the birdsong, and my lover.”
He then moved to the violin, where he gave a long performance that explored various microtonal tunings not normally heard in Western music, and the psychoacoustic effect of “difference tones” (or “ghost tones”) that arise out of the various combination of pitches—an effect that he accentuates with amplification. More typical of Conrad’s usual violin performance, this was a kind of careful listening exercise that was at once sensual, raw, and intensely focused. The hypnotic violin section moved quite naturally into the wilder and more violent action of bowing a metal wire attached to the foot of the aforementioned sewing machine, which kept the string moving. Thrilling sounds came out of this technique, as it turned the drone in new directions.
On a different evening, Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang presented some of his percussion works, played by the Meehan/Perkins duo. At the beginning of the concert, Lang explained to the audience that he sees percussionists as problem-solvers: His role as a composer is to create problems for the performers to figure out. For instance, in his work for solo percussion, Unchained Melody, the “problem” was actually a choice for the percussionist: Lang wrote out a melody for glockenspiel with instructions for the player to choose an accompanying “noise” for each note. The problem here not only was the physical difficulty of playing the noise with the note, but was also a mental one, forcing the performer to make pre-performance compositional choices.
In Table of Contents the problem became more of a physical one: The players were given a set of movements that acted as the “score” for the piece. In this respect, Lang was more of a choreographer than a composer. However, the purpose of the “dance” was not to convey the movements as dance movements, but rather to use the body as the source of the motion of the sound. The layout of the instruments allowed for a full body movement of the performers. Each of them had an almost identical set-up: two long bars stretched across, side by side, with bells and shakers of various sizes hanging in a long row. Wood blocks lay on music-stand platforms at a lower level. The performers’ motions were mostly horizontal, as they moved together across their respective bars of hanging instruments. They started off playing just bells, working together on an interlocking melody. As the wood blocks were introduced, the sound appeared to go in and out of phase, at times collapsing the otherwise straight line. The duo pulled this piece off masterfully, overcoming physical and mental “problems” to convey a kind of small-scale, delicate gamelan music.
Towards the end of the month, J. G. Thirlwell presented an evening of two sold-out sets of music from his current project, Manorexia, an ensemble consisting of string quartet, piano, percussion, and himself on laptop. If you are familiar with Thirlwell’s industrial solo project “Scraping Foetus off the Wheel,” or his fast paced big band project “Steroid Maximus,” this current ensemble may come as a surprise to you, as it is primarily quiet, sensitive, and dreamy. However there are hints of Thirlwell’s other personalities hidden in the music: as haunting melodies drift over other-worldly harmonies, the potential of violence looms, with occasional bursts of industrial percussion and raw, repeated string figures that cut into the otherwise serene sound. Manorexia’s music always seems to be on the verge of some magical discovery—there is a sense of wonder and amazement as the cinematic landscapes unfold. The most exhilarating and emotionally moving piece, “Chloe Don’t Know I’m Alive” (from Manorexia’s second album, The Radiolarian Ooze), began with a string unison while the pianist bowed a low piano string, emitting a glacial texture. Tom-tom tremolos swelled in and out of the sound as the string tunings shifted ever so slightly, creating immense emotional impact in an already apocalyptic atmosphere. In all this darkness, somehow the narrative of the piece ended up in light, as the harmonies brightened, and bells were ringing.
Sergei Tcherepnin is a composer/performer of new music currently based in Brooklyn.